Philosophical Rankings: Why are we still arguing about this?

Brian Leiter writes:

…[W]hat is more appalling is the nonsense about Penn State, Stony Brook, and Vanderbilt. First of all, they don’t have good departments, they have weak departments overall (with honorable exceptions etc. etc. etc.), whether you’re interested in philosophy of language or ancient philosophy or Continental philosophy.

He’s responding to this claim in the New York Times:

Some universities known to have good departments, like Penn State, Stony Brook and Vanderbilt, do not participate in the ratings.

This saddens me, especially because Leiter’s view of the institutions I’ve allied myself with will affect both my own job prospects and the placement of many of my friends. I just wish that everyone involved would stop beating this horse. Philosophers will never be like lawyers, where the task of sorting individual ability is so draining that we must fall back on status markers like alma mater or class rank. We can, and should, evaluate individual scholars based on particular papers and arguments. But these rankings create the aura of excellence around some schools, and this aura attaches itself to both the righteous and the wicked (or rather, the sharp and the blunt.)

Leiter’s rankings, like all rankings, took an initial evaluation, a weighted seed. We know how that works, from Google PageRank through college basketball. There are upsets and surprises, and a few underranked teams manage to make their way to the top. But in general, these initial and unscientific assessments cement the assessor’s own prejudices: in this case, Leiter’s. With no other rankings to work with, the profession immediately seized on the idea that he was doing something much more scientific, and those early rankings established lasting hierarchies. As the Philosophical Gourmets become more important, schools tune their efforts to satisfying Gourmet criteria, and the degree of statistical attention to detail is better reviewed such that most biases are being corrected. Kudos to Rutgers for their achievements, but let’s admit that those achievements are partly efforts to find favor in the eyes of one man and his circle of friends and supporters.

Now, I should say something that most people who disagree with Leiter won’t say: I don’t blame him. I believe that his initial intention was simply to provide guidance to unwary and uncertain undergraduates. Moreover, this is a laudable goal. I think the fault lies with hiring committees who rank applicants based on their alma mater, and on the academic industry that churns out so many more PhDs than it can use. Most graduate student at NYU are not path-breaking philosophers: they’re just folks who could afford to live in NYC on a graduate student stipend. Nor are Vanderbilt or Penn State PhDs weak ‘with honorable exceptions.’ Yet this is how the academic job market uses the rankings.

Finally, I do think that Leiter himself should spend some time dampening his rhetoric and apologizing for his inflammatory remarks in Gourmets past. He’s responsible for his share of the acrimony surrounding the report, and he seems to glory in the attention. This is detrimental to the profession and he should know better.

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